Reich was a respected analyst for much of his life, focusing on character structure, rather than on individual neurotic symptoms. He promoted adolescent sexuality, the availability of contraceptives and abortion, and the importance for women of economic independence. Synthesizing material from psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, economics, sociology, and ethics, his work influenced writers such as Alexander Lowen, Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, A. S. Neill, Robert Anton Wilson and William Burroughs.
He was also a controversial figure who attempted to take the psychoanalytic process to what he believed to be its logical next step. He exhorted the links between social factors and the development of neuroses, and how these neuroses were the result of emotions that were locked within people for numerous reasons, including lack of "natural sexuality". Though some of his methods are now widely in use, his attempts at what he considered "reforming the field" were seen at the time as his having gone astray. This lead the psychoanalytic establishment to allege mental illness to exclude him from the ranks of respected psychoanalysts, researchers and authors; all of which he had been from his early 20's. His work on the link between human sexuality and neuroses emphasized "orgastic potency" as the foremost criterion for psycho-physical health. He said he had discovered a form of energy, which he called "orgone," that permeated the atmosphere and all living matter, and he built "orgone accumulators," which his patients sat inside to harness the energy for its reputed health benefits. It was this work, in particular, that cemented the rift between Reich and the psychoanalytic establishment.
Reich, of Jewish descent and a communist, was living in Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power. He fled to Scandinavia in 1933 and subsequently to the United States in 1939, by which time he had become an ardent anti-fascist. In 1947, following a series of critical articles about orgone and his political views in The New Republic and Harper's, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began an investigation into his claims, winning an injunction against the interstate sale of orgone accumulators. Charged with contempt of court for violating the injunction, Reich conducted his own defense, which involved sending the judge all his books to read, and arguing that a court was no place to decide matters of science. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and in August 1956, several tons of his publications were burned by the FDA. He died of heart failure in jail just over a year later, days before he was due to apply for parole.
His father was Jewish, but had moved away from his ethnic and religious culture and had not raised his children as Jews; Wilhelm wasn't allowed to play with Yiddish-speaking children, and as an adult did not want to be described as Jewish.
Shortly after his birth, the family moved south to a farm in Jujinetz, near Chernivtsi, Bukovina, where Reich's father took control of a cattle farm owned by his mother's family. Reich attributed his later interest in the study of sex and the biological basis of the emotions to his upbringing on the farm where, as he later put it, the “natural life functions” were never hidden from him. Reich also spoke of witnessing the family's maid having intercourse with her boyfriend, and apparently later asking if he could “play” the part of the lover. He said that, by the time he was four years old, there were no secrets about sex for him.
He was taught at home until he was 12, when his mother committed suicide after being discovered having an affair with Reich's tutor, who lived with the family. In a report supposedly about a patient, Reich wrote about how deeply the affair had affected him, that the “joy of life [was] shattered, torn apart from my inmost being for the rest of my life!”
Her death was particularly brutal because of the method she chose; she drank a common household cleaner, which left her in great pain for days before she died. The tutor was sent away, and Reich was left without his mother or his teacher, and with a powerful sense of guilt.
He was sent to the all-male Czernowitz gymnasium, excelling at Latin, Greek, and the natural sciences. It appears to have been during this period that a skin condition developed that plagued him for the rest of his life. It was diagnosed as psoriasis; Reich was given medication that contained arsenic, now known to make psoriasis worse.
Reich's father was “completely broken” by his wife's suicide. In or around 1914, he took out a life insurance policy, then stood for hours in a cold pond, apparently fishing, but in fact intending to commit slow suicide, according to Reich and his brother Robert. He contracted pneumonia and then tuberculosis, and died in 1914 as a result of his illness; despite his insurance policy, no money was forthcoming.
Reich managed the farm and continued with his studies, graduating in 1915 mit Stimmeneinhelligkeit (unanimous approval). In the summer of 1915, the Russians invaded Bukovina and the Reich brothers fled to Vienna, losing everything. In his Passion of Youth, Reich wrote: “I never saw either my homeland or my possessions again. Of a well-to-do past, nothing was left.”
Reich joined the Austrian Army after school, serving from 1915-18, for the last two years as a lieutenant.
In 1918, when the war ended, he entered the medical school at the University of Vienna. As an undergraduate, he was drawn to the work of Sigmund Freud; the men first met in 1919 when Reich visited Freud to obtain literature for a seminar on sexology. Freud left a strong impression on Reich. Freud allowed him to start seeing analytic patients as early as 1920. Reich was accepted as a guest member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association in the summer of 1920, and became a regular member in October 1920, at the age of 23.
He was allowed to complete his six-year medical degree in four years because he was a war veteran, and received his M.D. in July 1922.
In 1922, he set up private practice as a psychoanalyst, and became a clinical assistant, and later deputy director, at Freud's Psychoanalytic Polyclinic. He joined the faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute in Vienna in 1924, and conducted research into the social causes of neurosis. There, he met Annie Pink, a patient of his and later an analyst herself. They married and had two daughters, Eva in 1924 and Lore in 1928. The couple separated in 1933, leaving the children with their mother. Reich's second wife, Elsa Lindenburg, was trained in Laban movement analysis, and was a pupil of Elsa Gindler, who had started to develop a system of breathing and somatic responsiveness named Arbeit am Menschen in 1910.
Reich developed a theory that the ability to feel sexual love depended on a physical ability to make love with what he called “orgastic potency”. He attempted to measure the male orgasm, noting that four distinct phases occurred physiologically: first, the psychosexual build-up or tension; second, the tumescence of the penis, with an accompanying “charge”, which Reich measured electrically; third, an electrical discharge at the moment of orgasm; and fourth, the relaxation of the penis. He believed the force that he measured was a distinct type of energy present in all life forms and later called it “orgone”.
He was a prolific writer for psychoanalytic journals in Europe. Originally, psychoanalysis was focused on the treatment of neurotic symptoms. Reich's Character Analysis was a major step in the development of what today would be called “ego psychology”. In Reich's view, a person's entire character, not only individual symptoms, could be looked at and treated as a neurotic phenomenon. The book also introduced Reich's theory of “body armoring”. He argued that unreleased psychosexual energy could produce actual physical blocks within muscles and organs, and that these act as a “body armor”, preventing the release of the energy. An orgasm was one way to break through the armor. These ideas developed into a general theory of the importance of a healthy sex life to overall well-being, a theory compatible with Freud's views.
Reich agreed with Freud that sexual development was the origin of mental illness. They both believed that most psychological states were dictated by unconscious processes; that infant sexuality develops early but is repressed, and that this has important consequences for mental health. At that time a Marxist (see article Freudo-Marxism), Reich argued that the source of sexual repression was bourgeois morality and the socio-economic structures that produced it. As sexual repression was the cause of the neuroses, the best cure would be to have an active, guilt-free sex life. He argued that such a liberation could come about only through a morality not imposed by a repressive economic structure. In 1928, he joined the Austrian Communist Party and founded the Socialist Association for Sexual Counseling and Research, which organized counseling centers for workers — in contrast to Freud, who was perceived as treating only the bourgeoisie.
Reich used touch to accompany the talking cure, taking an active role in sessions, feeling his patients' chests to check their breathing, repositioning their bodies, and sometimes requiring them to remove their clothes, so that men were treated wearing shorts and women in bra and panties. These methods caused a split between Reich and the rest of the psychoanalytic community.
In this book, Reich categorized fascism as a symptom of sexual repression. The book was banned by the Nazis when they came to power. He realized he was in danger and hurriedly left Germany disguised as a tourist on a ski trip to Austria. Reich was expelled from the International Psychological Association in 1934 for political militancy. Reich moved to Scandinavia in the early 1930s, first to Denmark where he was not allowed to settle permanently, and he then moved on to Sweden, however, he only stayed there for a short time before again moving on, this time to Norway in the fall of 1934. Reich stayed in Norway five years and did much seminal research here, in the beginning under the auspices of the University of Oslo, however there existed strong opposition to his work also here, which came to a head with a veritable smear campaign in late 1937 and throughout much of 1938, involving prominent authorities of the medical and psychiatric establishment. One of Reich's most fervent apologists during this period was his friend and colleague Ola Raknes. Raknes' influence on Reich has been asserted to have been considerable but mostly overlooked. Reich left Norway for the United States in the fall of 1939.
He was also a controversial figure, who came to be viewed by the psychoanalytic establishment as having gone astray or as having succumbed to mental illness. His work on the link between human sexuality and neuroses emphasized “orgastic potency” as the foremost criterion for psycho-physical health. He said he had discovered a form of energy, which he called “orgone,” that permeated the atmosphere and all living matter, and he built “orgone accumulators,” which his patients sat inside to harness the energy for its reputed health benefits. It was this work, in particular, that cemented the rift between Reich and the psychoanalytic establishment.
In 1947, following a series of critical articles about Reich's “psychofascism” in The New Republic and his “dubious professional standing” in Harper's, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began an investigation into his claims, and won an injunction against the interstate sale of orgone accumulators. Charged with contempt of court for violating the injunction, Reich conducted his own defense, which involved sending the judge all his books to read, and arguing that a court was no place to decide matters of science. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and in August 1956, several tons of his publications were burned by the FDA. He died of heart failure in jail just over a year later, days before he was due to apply for parole.
From 1934-37, based for most of the period in Oslo, Reich conducted experiments seeking the origins of life.
He examined protozoa, single-celled creatures with nuclei. He grew cultured vesicles using grass, sand, iron, and animal tissue, boiling them, and adding potassium and gelatin. Having heated the materials to incandescence with a heat-torch, he noted bright, glowing, blue vesicles, which, he said, could be cultured, and which gave off an observable radiant energy. This he called “orgone”. He named the vesicles “bions” and believed they were a rudimentary form of life, or halfway between life and non-life.
When he poured the cooled mixture onto growth media, bacteria were born. Based on various control experiments, Reich dismissed the idea that the bacteria were already present in the air, or in the other materials used. Reich's The Bion Experiments on the Origin of Life was published in Oslo in 1938, leading to attacks in the press that he was a “Jew pornographer” who was daring to meddle with the origins of life.
A Norwegian biologist named Kreyberg was allowed to see one of Reich's bion preparations under the microscope, and also observed that the "broth" Reich had used as his culture medium was indeed sterile. He concluded that the bacteria were, in fact, ordinary staphylococci, and that Reich's control measures to prevent infection from such airborne bacteria were therefore not as foolproof as Reich believed.
In 1936, Reich wrote that “[s]ince everything is antithetically arranged, there must be two different types of single-celled organisms: (a) life-destroying organisms or organisms that form through organic decay, (b) life-promoting organisms that form from inorganic material that comes to life.”
This idea of spontaneous generation led him to believe he had found the cause of cancer. He called the life-destroying organisms “T-bacilli“, with the T standing for Tod, German for death. He described in The Cancer Biopathy how he had found them in a culture of rotting cancerous tissue obtained from a local hospital. He wrote that T-bacilli were formed from the disintegration of protein; they were 0.2 to 0.5 micrometer in length, shaped like lancets, and when injected into mice, they caused inflammation and cancer. He concluded that, when orgone energy diminishes in cells through aging or injury, the cells undergo “bionous degeneration” or death. At some point, the deadly T-bacilli start to form in the cells. Death from cancer, he believed, was caused by an overwhelming growth of the T-bacilli.
In March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria. Reich's ex-wife and daughters had already left for the U.S., and in August 1939, Reich sailed out of Norway on the last boat to leave before the war began. He settled in Forest Hills, Queens, and in 1946, married Ilse Ollendorf, with whom he had a son, Peter.
It was during this period, according to some researchers, that Reich appeared to suffer a breakdown. They say that he became paranoid and revised parts of his earlier works to remove references to Marxist theory. Reich's defenders say that these revisions were minor, confined only to the English-speaking American period of his work, and were primarily sexological, clinical, or scientific in nature. Reich was one of the first of the European socialists to break ranks completely with the Communist Party; for example, in his book Mass Psychology of Fascism, which he wrote after a trip to Russia, he identified communism as “Red Fascism”. His defenders say that the charge of paranoia is intended to discredit Reich's critique of Marxism. American writer Jim Martin alleges that many of those who have attacked Reich's biophysical research — on the orgone accumulator, for example — were themselves leftist and Marxist. In 1940, Reich built boxes called orgone accumulators to concentrate atmospheric orgone energy; some were for lab animals, and some were large enough for a human being to sit inside. Reich said orgone was the “primordial cosmic energy”, blue in color, which he claimed was omnipresent and responsible for such things as weather, the color of the sky, gravity, the formation of galaxies, and the biological expressions of emotion and sexuality. Composed of alternating layers of ferrous metals and organic insulators with a high dielectric constant, his orgone accumulators had the appearance of a large, hollow capacitor. It was the construction of these boxes that caught the attention of the press, leading to wild rumors that they were “sex boxes” which caused uncontrollable erections. Based on experiments with the orgone accumulator, he argued that orgone energy was a negatively-entropic force in nature which was responsible for concentrating and organizing matter. Reich posited a conjugate, life-annulling energy in opposition to orgone, which he dubbed Deadly Orgone or DOR. Reich claimed that accumulations of DOR played a role in desertification and designed a “cloudbuster” with which he said he could manipulate streams of orgone energy in the atmosphere to induce rain by forcing clouds to form and disperse. Reich reported observing UFOs over Orgonon, Maine and also in the Arizona skies during his drought-relief expedition into the American Southwest. Reich even claimed to have done battle with the UFOs, convinced that his “cloudbuster” could be deployed to extinguish the anomalous “stars” from the sky.
According to Reich's theory, illness was primarily caused by depletion or blockages of the orgone energy within the body. He conducted clinical tests of the orgone accumulator on people suffering from a variety of illnesses. The patient would sit within the accumulator and absorb the “concentrated orgone energy”. He built smaller, more portable accumulator-blankets of the same layered construction for application to parts of the body. The effects observed were claimed to boost the immune system, even to the point of destroying certain types of tumors, though Reich was hesitant to claim this constituted a “cure”. The orgone accumulator was also tested on mice with cancer, and on plant-growth, the results convincing Reich that the benefits of orgone therapy could not be attributed to a placebo effect. He had, he believed, developed a grand unified theory of physical and mental health.
On December 30, 1940, Reich wrote to Albert Einstein saying he had a scientific discovery he wanted to discuss, and on January 13, 1941 went to visit Einstein in Princeton. They talked for five hours, and Einstein agreed to test an orgone accumulator, which Reich had constructed out of a Faraday cage made of galvanized steel and insulated by wood and paper on the outside. Einstein agreed that if, as Reich suggested, an object's temperature could be raised without an apparent heating source, it would be “a bomb” in physics. This heating effect would be an amazing result since it would allow the construction of a perpetual motion machine, which would violate the laws of thermodynamics.
Reich supplied Einstein with a small accumulator during their second meeting, and Einstein performed the experiment in his basement, which involved taking the temperature atop, inside, and near the device. He also stripped the device down to its Faraday cage to compare temperatures. In his attempt to replicate Reich's findings, Einstein observed a rise in temperature, which according to Reich was the result of a novel form of energy—orgone energy—that had accumulated inside the Faraday cage. However, one of Einstein's assistants pointed out that the temperature was lower at the floor than that on the ceiling. Following that remark, Einstein modified the experiment and, as a result, concluded that the effect was simply due to the temperature gradient inside the room. He then wrote back to Reich, describing his experiments and expressing the hope that Reich would develop a more skeptical approach.
Reich responded with a 25-page letter to Einstein, expressing concern that “convection from the ceiling” would join “air germs” and “Brownian movement” to explain away new findings, according to Reich's biographer, Myron Sharaf. Sharaf writes that Einstein conducted some more experiments, but then regarded the matter as “completely solved”.
The correspondence between Reich and Einstein was published by Reich's press as The Einstein Affair in 1953, possibly without Einstein's permission.
Reich was investigated by the FBI when he arrived in the U.S. because he was an immigrant with a communist background. The FBI released 789 pages of its files on Reich in 2000; a State Department press release stated:
This German immigrant described himself as the Associate Professor of Medical Psychology, Director of the Orgone Institute, President and research physician of the Wilhelm Reich Foundation and discoverer of biological or life energy. A 1940 security investigation was begun to determine the extent of Reich's communist commitments. A board of Alien Enemy Hearing judged that Dr. Reich was not a threat to the security of the U.S. In 1947, a security investigation concluded that neither the Orgone Project nor any of its staff were engaged in subversive activities or were in violation of any statute within the jurisdiction of the FBI.
On May 26, 1947, an article appeared in The New Republic entitled “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich” by Mildred Edie Brady. The subhead was “The man who blames both neuroses and cancer on unsatisfactory sexual activities has been repudiated by only one scientific journal.”
Orgone, named after the sexual orgasm, is, according to Reich, a cosmic energy. It is, in fact, the cosmic energy. Reich has not only discovered it; he has seen it, demonstrated it and named a town — Orgonon, Maine — after it. Here he builds accumulators of it which are rented out to patients, who presumably derive 'orgastic potency' from it.
Sharaf writes that the implication was clear: the accumulators gave orgastic potency, the lack of which causes cancer. Therefore, the claim for the accumulators was that they cured cancer. Brady argued that the “growing Reich cult” had to be dealt with.
On July 23, Dr. J.J. Durrett, director of the Medical Advisory Division of the Federal Trade Commission, wrote to the FDA asking them to look into Reich's claims about the health benefits of orgone. The FDA assigned an investigator named Wood to the case, who learned that Reich had built 250 accumulators; the FDA concluded that they were dealing with a “fraud of the first magnitude”. Sharaf writes that the FDA suspected a “sexual racket” of some kind; questions were asked about the women associated with orgonomy and “what was done with them”.
In November, Reich wrote in Conspiracy. An Emotional Chain Reaction: “I would like to plead for my right to investigate natural phenomena without having guns pointed at me. I also ask for the right to be wrong without being hanged for it … I am angry because smearing can do anything and truth can do so little to prevail, as it seems at the moment.” Sharaf writes that Reich came to believe that Brady was a Stalinist acting under orders from the Communist Party, a “communist sniper“, as Reich called her.
On February 10, 1954, the U.S. Attorney for Maine, acting on behalf of the FDA, filed a complaint seeking a permanent injunction under Sections 301 and 302 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, to prevent interstate shipment of orgone-therapy equipment and literature. Reich refused to appear in court, apparently believing that no court was in a position to evaluate his work. In his cover letter for the response he submitted to the court, he wrote to Judge Clifford:
My factual position in the case as well as in the world of science of today does not permit me to enter the case against the Food and Drug Administration, since such action would, in my mind, imply admission of the authority of this special branch of the government to pass judgment on primordial, pre-atomic cosmic orgone energy. I, therefore, rest the case in full confidence in your hands.
Because of Reich's failure to appear, Clifford granted the injunction on March 19, 1954. His ruling ordered that all written materials that mentioned “orgone energy” — including papers and pamphlets, and ten of Reich's books — were to be destroyed. It further stated that additional copies of his books, including revised editions of The Mass Psychology of Fascism, could not be published unless all references to “orgone energy” were deleted.
Dr. Morton Herskowitz, a fellow psychiatrist and friend of Reich's, wrote of the trial: “Because he viewed himself as a historical figure, he was making a historical point, and to make that point he had conducted the trial that way. If I had been in his shoes, I would have wanted to escape jail, I would have wanted to be free, etc. I would have conducted the trial on a strictly legal basis because the lawyers had said, 'We can win this case for you. Their case is so weak, so when you let us do our thing we can get you off.' But he wouldn't do it.”
On June 5, 1956, FDA officials traveled to Orgonon, Reich's 200-acre (80-hectare) estate near Rangeley, Maine, where they destroyed the accumulators, and on June 26, burned many of his books. On August 25, 1956 and again on March 17, 1960, the remaining six tons of his books, journals and papers were burned in the 25th Street public incinerator in New York's lower east side (Gansevoort incinerator). In March 1957, he was sent to Danbury Federal Prison, where a psychiatrist examined him, recording: “Paranoia manifested by delusions of grandiosity and persecution and ideas of reference.”
Reich died in his sleep of heart failure on November 3, 1957 in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, shortly before he was due to apply for parole. Not one psychiatric or established scientific journal carried an obituary. Time Magazine noted on November 18, 1957:
Reich was buried in Orgonon. Next to the grave stands a replica of Reich's invention, the “cloudbuster”. The Wilhelm Reich Museum now sits at the top of Orgonon, in the building which housed Reich's laboratory, teaching, and psychiatric treatment facilities.
New research journals devoted to Reich's work began to appear in the 1960s. Physicians and natural scientists with an interest in Reich organized small study groups and institutes, and new research efforts were undertaken. James DeMeo undertook research while a graduate student at the University of Kansas into Reich's atmospheric theories. A later study by DeMeo subjected Reich's sex-economic theory to cross-cultural evaluations, later included in DeMeo's book Saharasia.
The scientific community regards his orgone theories as pseudoscience..
There is some use of orgone accumulator therapy by psychotherapists in Europe, particularly in Germany. A double-blind, controlled study of the psychological and physical effects of the orgone accumulator was carried out by Stefan Müschenich and Rainer Gebauer at the University of Marburg and appeared to validate some of Reich's claims. The study was later reproduced by Günter Hebenstreit at the University of Vienna. William Steig, Robert Anton Wilson, Norman Mailer, William S. Burroughs, Jerome D. Salinger and Orson Bean have all undergone Reich's orgone therapy. Benjamin Creme - founder of Share International - used this device early in his searchings for spiritual enlightenment. This device was used by Creme to assist him in learning to contact the so-called "ascended masters". Creme claims his primary contact today with these beings is with one known as Maitreya who is "soon" to appear as the World Teacher.
Reich was a pioneer of body psychotherapy and several emotions-based psychotherapies, influencing Fritz Perls' Gestalt therapy and Arthur Janov's primal therapy. (See also Neo-Reichian massage). His pupil Alexander Lowen, the founder of bioenergetic analysis, Charles Kelley, the founder of Radix therapy, and DeMeo ensure that his research receives widespread attention. Many practising psychoanalysts give credence to his theory of character, as outlined in his book Character Analysis (1933, enlarged 1949). The American College of Orgonomy, founded by the late Elsworth Baker M.D., and the Institute for Orgonomic Science, led by Dr. Morton Herskowitz, still use Reich's original therapeutic methods.
Nearly all Reich's publications have been reprinted, apart from his research journals which are available as photocopies from the Wilhelm Reich Museum. The first editions are not available: Reich continuously amended his books throughout his life, and the owners of Reich's copyright actively forbid anything other than the latest revised versions to be reprinted. In the late 1960s, Farrar, Straus & Giroux republished Reich's major works.
Reich's life and work continue to influence popular culture, with references to orgone and cloudbusting found in songs by Clutch, Hawkwind, Pop Will Eat Itself, Turbonegro, Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith ("Birdland" on Horses). An article about the female orgasm by Reich provided the inspiration for "Little Man Within" by Welsh singer/songwriter Karl Wallinger of World Party.
The science fiction author Robert Anton Wilson wrote a play, Wilhelm Reich in Hell, based on his life. This play was also published as a book with an added long introduction. A film about Reich's teachings called W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism was made in 1971 by Yugoslavian director Dušan Makavejev, and was listed by film critic Roger Ebert in his "Great Movie" series in 2007. A short drama film about Reich by Jon East (entitled IT CAN BE DONE) was nominated for a Silver Lion at the 1999 Venice Film Festival.
In Jack Kerouac's autobiographical novel On the Road written in 1951, Old Bull Lee (modelled on William Burroughs) extols the benefits of the orgone accumulator he owns and considers how it may be improved by building it from 'more organic' wood. Burroughs makes several references to Orgone energy in his own novels and essays as well.
Reich is the subject, along with real estate developer Del Webb, of the 2008 documentary Wasteland Utopias by filmmaker David Sherman.